Sacred Drift: The Orthodox Jewish Community in the Lower East Side.
This is a series of images that was commisioned by STORY magazine, a new magazine devoted to documentary photography. You can puchase copies or learn about it here.

In November of 2005, I moved into an apartment on New York City’s Lower East Side. Once home to scores of Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe, the area is said to have contained more than 400 places of Jewish worship. These historic buildings range from large, ostentatious “shuls,” or synagogues, to “shteeblech,” small, renovated tenement apartments used by a group of people who emigrated from the same community.
The current number of shuls now hovers around thirty. Many are threatened with closure due to a shortage of congregants and have fallen into disrepair due to a lack of funds.
As a native of Detroit, I’m used to seeing beautiful, architecturally significant buildings that are heartbreakingly on the verge of collapse. I’m fascinated by the ebb and flow of population, its effect on culture and the urban decay often left behind. But while the remnants of Detroit are industrial, the hulking structures and hidden spaces of my new neighborhood have a spiritual character that evokes a more gothic sense of emptiness and intensity.
One of these shteebles, home to a very strict Hassidic sect from Lithuania, is located in my apartment building on East Broadway. After moving in, I soon discovered that I lived on a historic block named “Shteeble Row.” What’s more, an ancient, bearded sage known as the g’bai (rabbi/caretaker) lived like a hermit in the basement.
A perfect subject! I thought, until I learned that he had a strict rule against photography. That led me out of the door and into a number of shuls on my block and nearby.
The story of the Orthodox Jewish community on the Lower East Side is not entirely bleak. The oldest house of Jewish worship in the U.S., on Eldridge Street, was named a national historic landmark and is undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation of its upper sanctuary. During my work, I encountered several young practitioners and witnessed different generations praying together. And a small smattering of young Orthodox families are moving back into the neighborhood, infusing a dying culture with new life.
Though I was raised as a Reform Jew, my interest in the neighborhood is not spiritual but cultural and rooted in my own Eastern-European heritage. It stems also from my fascination with fading traditions, sub-cultures and fundamentalists of all stripes. I have not intended to romanticize the religion or the practices of these worshippers. This is meant to be a sociological and artful look at the remnants of a waning culture and the neighborhood it shaped for much of the last century.
18 photos · 594 views